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Issue Date:  February 20, 2004

From the Editor's Desk

A critical eye on art

John Allen, our Rome correspondent, is one of the few people I know who has actually seen Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” He viewed it at a screening in Rome several weeks ago and briefly reported on it in his Word from Rome column. When we talked about it, he described the movie as powerful and predicted it would prove a moving experience -- whatever theological or historical arguments one might have with the movie -- especially for young Catholics.

Before he began his career in journalism, Allen was a religion teacher at Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, Calif. So I asked him to take a temporary detour from his normal reporting duties and recapture the imagination he once used in the classroom to help develop a guide for discussing “The Passion.” John provided many of the questions for the guide. Other questions and topics were added by associate publisher Sr. Rita Larivee, a theologian and former college educator. Amid all the controversy attending this film, I am fairly certain of one thing -- Mel Gibson knows how to make a powerful movie. It seems the best thing we can do with cultural phenomena such as the Gibson film is to figure out ways to think and talk critically about them.

I think you’ll find it not only helpful in discussing the movie, but also in exploring more deeply the rich themes of a season that is central to our lives as Christians (see story).

If you would like extra copies of the guide for use in small group or classroom settings, brochure-size copies of it will be available for a nominal fee. Call Jo Ann Schierhoff at (816) 968-2239.

“The Passion” might well fit under the question: What to do with art that some deem offensive? Where does artistic expression cross the line? I don’t know the answer to that except to say I lean heavily on the side of First Amendment protections of free speech, believing that if we begin to tighten the circle around those protections, we might eliminate a temporary annoyance while setting precedents that could easily return to harm all of us.

The issue is complex, but again I think the best we can do is to find ways to think and discuss critically before moving to condemn or censor. So I recommend the essay by Eleanor Heartney who asks a fascinating question: Why are so many controversial contemporary artists from a Catholic background? (See story.)

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A letter crossed my desk today asking why we keep revisiting the ugliness of the sex abuse crisis. Fair question. It may seem repetitious at times, as if we’re getting nowhere, but this is one of the most important stories confronting the church in modern history. It goes to the heart of the church’s mission, its credibility and how the hierarchy views its relationship to laity and to priests. Jason Berry knows this story better than most. Berry’s reporting and long perspective on the issue (see story) provide a valuable framework for assessing the reports on the causes and extent of the crisis due out before the end of the month. The complexities of the issue are further evident in Joe Feuerherd’s interview with Jesuit Fr. Ladislas Orsy (see story) and William Bole’s opinion piece (see story).

~ ~ ~

Next week, look for Claire Schaeffer-Duffy’s report from the World Social Forum held recently in Mumbai, India.

-- Tom Roberts

National Catholic Reporter, February 20, 2004

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